When people think of rodeos, usually what comes to mind are bullfighting, bronc riding, or mutton busting.
But there is another rodeo entertainer whose performance is highly anticipated: A rodeo clown.
At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, rodeo clown and barrelman Leon Coffee entertains the crowd. He’s been making millions of attendees laugh for more than 20 years.
“That’s 400 performances, and at one place. That’s more than a lot of bullfighters and barrelmen have in their career,” Coffee said.
But, the gig isn’t all fun and games. It’s highly dangerous. The rodeo clown stands in a barrel during the bull riding competition, providing comic relief in between stunts. Because of his limited mobility, he relies on the bullfighters to keep him and the other rides safe.
“When I’m working the barrel, my life depends on the guys on the outside. My life is in their hands,” Coffee said.
Aside from guts, becoming a barrelman also often also requires training and bullfighting experience. In fact, Coffee said he started rodeoing in 1969 and was once a bullfighter.
Tayloe Glass, a bullfighting instructor at Sankey Rodeo School, said cardio endurance and being quick on your feet are the best qualities to develop as a bullfighter and rodeo clown. He said working as a rodeo clown is just as—if not more—dangerous as bullfighting.
“Getting inside that barrel just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. And, I’ve seen them before. The bulls get a horn or a hoof inside the barrel, and when the rodeo clown, when he’s down inside that barrel, he can’t see what’s going on,” Glass said. “So the bullfighters want to be their eyes and ears.”
Coffee claimed he’s suffered nearly 140 breaks.
“I’ll tell you I’ve been knocked more in that barrel than I ever have fighting bulls,” he said.
It’s part of the reason why he’s thinking of retiring.
“To be perfectly honest, you can outrun a lot of things, and I’ve outrun a lot of things. But, Father Time is undefeated, and Father Time is outrunning me right now. I can’t do the physical work that it takes to keep this going,” Coffee said.
Regardless of when he retires, he said he’d relish the time well spent.
“The comedy of it,” Coffee said. “That’s what I’m going to miss.”